Last week the Wall Street Journal broke the story that McDonald’s is testing robotic deep fryers and voice-activated drive-thrus at a location in suburban Chicago.
The story didn’t lay out a ton of details. We don’t know what the robotic fryer will look like — whether it’s akin to Miso Robotic’s Flippy, which fries tater tots with an articulating arm, or if it’s more of an automated basket that dips and raises from hot oil. Likewise, all we know about the new drive-thru tech is that it’s a type of voice recognition technology.
But even with those question marks, this is a huge step forward for automation in fast-food. It’s also an inevitable one, since the success of the QSR is predicated on making consistent food at a fast pace. I’m hard-pressed to find a task that robots are more suited for.
The WSJ pointed out that these innovations are part of McDonald’s efforts to quicken the chain’s pace of service to help it edge out fast-food competition. That’s certainly true, but there are numerous other benefits as well. Automating dangerous jobs like frying could lead to fewer employee injuries. In addition to being potentially life-threatening, these injuries can also have a high cost for the restaurant.
As far as the drive-thru goes, adding voice recognition technology can help McDonald’s streamline the drive-thru experience, cutting down on ever-lengthening wait times. It could also pair up with Dynamic Yield, the AI-powered personalization platform that McDonald’s acquired a few months ago, to access customer’s past orders, preferences, and dietary restrictions to better upsell them on targeted add-ons.
Of course there will still be kinks to work out. Voice technology isn’t perfect, and robot fryers still need human employees to help them do things like bag orders. McDonald’s is also already getting blowback from skeptics who worry that automation will take valuable jobs away from humans.
However, speakers at our ArticulATE conference this April pointed out that there’s a growing labor crisis in the restaurant industry. QSR’s especially are struggling to find people to do the more repetitive, boring and dangerous tasks — like frying nuggets and taking orders for hours at a time.
McDonald’s isn’t the first restaurant to try out cooking robots or voice ordering technology. However, it’s by far the largest. It’s hard to argue against the fact that automation in food-service, as with any industry, was always going to happen eventually. But once a giant like McDonald’s starts putting the automation wheels in motion, eventually starts to look a whole lot sooner.